Gidget on the Couch

Surfing’s Premier Nihilist, Yet Another Papa-Centric Tale, Double-Secret-Crypto Jews, Something You Buy vs. Something You Do, Weimar on the Pacific, A Man Named Tubesteak, Hitchcockian Voyeurs, Sexual-Coming-of-Age Novels, Teaching Sally Field to Surf

Gidget on the Couch

Peter Lunenfeld
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If I had a couple bucks to buy a book, I wouldn’t. I’d buy some beer. 

—Malibu surfer in Life magazine, right after Gidget was published

An Analysis of a Case of a Little Girl with Big Ideas

While sports, life, and style have been around for a while, the “sports lifestyle” as a distinct market is a mere half-century old. Like much else of cultural import in the years since World War II, this niche is the product of the human laboratory we call California, and specifically of its coastline. Surfing is enjoying (or despising, depending on your perspective) one of its periodic peaks in the general consciousness, which makes it appropriate to look back the five decades to the moment when the sport broke free of its cult status and became the urtext of athletic sports retailing. The publication of Gidget in 1957 did not just introduce us to the barely fictionalized account of a girl’s summer in Malibu; it started a chain reaction that introduced surfing to the rest of the country and spread it to the world at large. The novel was licensed for three hit movies, and later made into numerous television shows. Within a few years, the Beach Boys, woodies, hangin’ ten, and board shorts were as popular in Kansas City as Santa Cruz.

The thing to remember is that, since 1957, surfing as something you buy has overshadowed surfing as something you do. I would hazard that no other activity has ever generated as many products among people who neither know how to do it, nor follow those who do.1 The archetypal surfer might be a sun-bleached, vacant eyed, de-racinated beach boy, but there are deeper -stories beneath surfing’s glossy surface. Like Los Angeles, surfing -often seems to be outside the realm of history, trapped in a permanent present. In this story, though, noir eclipses sunshine; high culture paves the way for low commerce; utopia inspires and disappoints in equal measure; and the surf shops of Hunting-ton Beach owe an unacknowledged debt to the sweet scents of Viennese coffee houses.

Before Gidget, however, there was a real girl named Kathy Kohner who learned to surf Malibu in the summer of 1956. From her house in Brentwood, it was a trip of fewer than fifteen miles, but one that took her out of American suburbia and into an emergent youth subculture, though nobody called it a subculture back then. California was full of rebels against conformity—bikers in Bakersfield, Beats in San Francisco, low riders from East L.A., and guys riding what looked like planks spread out from Oceanside near San Diego to Santa Cruz up north. Malibu fell somewhere in the -middle, seventeen miles of unincorporated land, just north of Los Angeles, and over the hill from the rapidly filling suburbs of the San Fernando Valley. Kathy’s mother, an exceedingly -minor player in this Papa-centric tale, was of the opinion that her movie-crazy fifteen-year-old should get out into the sunshine, so she forced her to go to the beach every weekend with two older male cousins. Bored and curious, Kathy wandered from one side of the Malibu pier to the other. What she saw was a collection of great-looking young men riding the waves. She walked up to one and asked, “Am I bothering you?” to which he responded, “You’re breathing, aren’t you?” Unlike the beach bunnies who were already hopping along the shore, Kathy decided that she wanted to join the men in the water and brought sandwiches with her to trade for time on their boards. The “boys” all had nicknames like the Big Kahuna, Tubesteak, and Da Cat (more on him later). Kathy—five feet tall, and ninety-five pounds when wet—was evidently a girl and, in the estimation of the -surfers, quite small: hence, Girl-Midget, or Gidget, a name that reeks of both schoolyard taunts and Freudian condensation (the trick of the dreamwork that yields the equation girl + midget = gidget). Eventually, Kathy/Gidget bought a board for $30.00 and taught herself to surf.

It was at the point that Kathy decided to commit her experiences to paper that things become more complicated. She was planning to write a book about that summer, but her father convinced her that he should write it. This made some sense, as Frederick Kohner was a professional writer, and an accomplished one at that. Born in Teplitz-Schönau, the Czech spa town that inspired Ibsen to write Enemy of the People, Frederick got his PhD in Vienna, and then moved to Berlin to work in film. His brother had moved to Los Angeles in 1921, and so when the Nazis made Berlin increasingly inhospitable for Jews in all fields, Frederick followed in 1933. The newcomer gained steady work and even received an Oscar nomination for coauthoring Mad About -Music (1938). Frederick would be all but forgotten, had it not been for the book he wrote about the new friends his daughter Kathy made the summer of her sophomore year in high school.

That famous son of Vienna, Sigmund Freud, never made it out west, and the closest he ever came to New World beach culture was a day trip to Coney Island in 1909, but we might well turn to him now, because the full title of the novel, Gidget: The Little Girl With the Big Ideas, sounds alarmingly like one of the great doctor’s case studies.

#1: Frederick began to listen in on his daughter’s phone calls—with Kathy’s permission, but not her friends’—in order to “get the language right.” Consider a photo from a Life magazine shoot after the success of the novel. Kathy’s on the phone, while her father, pipe in mouth, lurks in the shadowy doorway, looking for all the world like a Hitchcockian voyeur. But Frederick was hardly the passive type. Having appropriated his daughter’s life, he proceeded to sell it as a transmedia property to publishing, film, and television.

#2: Frederick is both prurient and ambivalent about his fictional daughter’s sexual awakening. On the one hand there is much ’50s-era talk of breasts like “fangled chassis that would put Jayne Mans-field to shame.” On the other, the poor girl doesn’t know the meaning of the word “orgy.” She looks it up in her “old man’s” Funk & Wagnall’s, traces its etymology back to Pythagoras, but never figures out its sexual meaning.2

#3: Gidget is very much the out-sider’s book, a girl watching boys being watched by her émigré father. In the novel, Gidget’s dad is a professor of German literature at USC and a Mitteleuropean gloss pervades the description of Gidget’s life. There are sabbaticals in Berlin, side trips to Venice, and “that bitchen Mondsee in Austria.” Gidget reads Francois Sagan’s French sexual-coming-of-age novel A Certain Smile three times, listening to Fats Domino. Gidget’s brother-in-law is a psychoanalyst, a “disciple of Freud and Rorschach” with a Beverly Hills practice specializing in children. Freudian language pervades the novel. “I guess you would call this fetishism or something,” as Gidget says. Relocate Jules et Jim from Paris to SoCal, and they’re Moondoggie and the Great Kahuna, with Sandra Dee subbing in for Jeanne Moreau.

#4: Like fellow icons Mr. Spock and the Thing from the Fantastic Four, Gidget is Jewish, but nobody knows. To complicate matters even further, Gidget is the obvious inspiration for Malibu Barbie. Ruth Handler, the cofounder of Mattel, named Barbie after her own Jewish daughter, Barbara. This lineage means that Malibu Barbie, the ultimate California blonde, is a double-secret-crypto-Jew.

As Gidget moved from the page to the screen—from the “real” Kathy Kohner to Sandra Dee (herself “really” Alexandra Zuck) to Sally Field to the many other actresses who have played her—she followed the great American trajectory of willful forgetting of ethnic and regional roots. The cinematic and televisual Gidgets came from bland American families and generic, WASP moms and dads. Within half a decade, her deracinated status as com-modity was complete. Also erased was Gidget’s status as a feminist heroine. The book concludes with Gidget riding a wave by herself for the first time. “I was so jazzed up that I didn’t care whether I would break my neck or ever see Jeff again—or the great Kahuna. I stood, high like on a mountain peak, and dove down, but I stood it.” Standing on the board (“getting up”) and angling down the face of the wave is the first lurching movement out of kookdom and into the ranks of real surfers. The literary Gidget gives voice to the physicality of surfing, the hard work and terrifying joys peculiar to all gravity-driven thrills.

By the time the novel was adapted for films and television, seeing “Jeff again” regained its supremacy and Gidget the inspiration became Gidget as played by a succession of Hollywood actresses, using Malibu as a backdrop for the Hollywood dyad of girl meeting boy. But before she moved on, Kathy/Gidget left an indelible mark on the place where she was named. As surf journalist Paul Gross has written, “Malibu is the exact spot on earth where ancient surfing became modern surfing,” and Gidget announced this to the world. This transformation has always been seen as a move east from Hawaii to California, but it was, as we have seen from the Kohner family saga, touched by the flow west of refugees from Europe’s near suicide in the first half of the twentieth century.


Da Cat on his Board

Of the surfers that Gidget hung with that fabled summer, none was more ambivalent about the transformation of Malibu than the mysterious and gifted Miki Dora, who was likewise a child of that move from Europe to California. Dora was the master of the Malibu waves, an innovative iconoclast, a true rebel in a sea of poseurs, “a Kerouac in shorts,” as the London Times put it. Born Miklos Sandor Dora III in Budapest, he had more aliases than a master thief, which later in life he became. He was Miki Dora, but sometimes Mickey Dora, occasionally Dickie Mora, and for a while he took his stepfather’s last name and became Mickey Chapin. Then there were the nicknames—the Black Knight or the Gypsy Darling for his dark Magyar good looks; Malibu Mickey, King’Bu, the Fiasco Kid; and most famous of all, Da Cat, for his feline grace on a board.

Before we get any deeper into the stories about Dora—and they are legion, often unverified and unverifiable—we should make clear the one thing that all who saw and knew Dora agreed upon. Dora was an artist. He lived only for the -moment of being and being seen on the wave. The master of small- to medium-wave surfing, he was a graceful longboarder in complete sync with the elements, famed for his light stance on the board and ultra-nimble footwork—hence Da Cat. On and off the water, he was omnipotent and inscrutable, wearing trench coats or top hats down to the beach, shooting rockets off the pier, painting swastikas on his board (less fascist impulse than a last ditch effort to epater les bourgeois). He drove the fastest cars, dated Hollywood starlets, and never, never, held down a real job. Others of his generation might have been surfing bigger waves or winning more contests, but Dora was about style above all else. He was the Muhammad Ali of his sport, the original haole soul surfer.

Miki’s father was a Royal Calvary officer who met a beauty from Los Angeles and moved with her to Hollywood. He opened a restaurant on Sunset Boulevard called the -Little Hungary, and there young Miklos met regulars Billy Wilder, Michael Korda, and Greta Garbo. These were film colonials who hungered for the culture that had disappeared along with the rest of Austro-Hungarian Empire, and access to them meant that Hollywood and its parties were as open to Miki as were the waters on the coast.

After his mother divorced his father, she married a very different sort of man, surf pioneer Gard Chapin, a roughneck rebel who never fit into polite society. If Miki’s biological father connected him to Hollywood, stepfather Chapin’s ob-session with the development of surfboards brought the young Miki into the high-tech world of California’s industrial design, including visits to Charles and Ray Eames’s studio. The legacy of Miki’s two patriarchs, the Hungarian hussar and the surfing redneck, determined the course of his life. Miki might have been born to ride waves, but he never shared the sunny obliviousness of postwar California teens. Instead, along with his boards and wax, he brought European nihilism to the beach.

Miki started surfing when virtually no one did. He and a few others had the waves to themselves. The late ’40s and early ’50s were to Dora an unrecapturable Eden, a mythic space of freedom that a ninety-five-pound girl-midget destroyed. Yet Miki was also willing to cash in, as an extra in the awful beach party films shot in Malibu, happily grabbing a free trip to Hawaii to stunt double for Ride the Wild Surf, teaching actress Sally Field how to -handle herself on a board when she was television’s first Gidget. Dora was the prototype for the new sports lifestyle icon of independence, the extreme outlaw who decries selling out at the very moment he cashes in. When he finally agreed to do a signature board in 1966, it was the biggest seller in history, not only when it first hit the market, but again a quarter of a century later when it was rereleased. Even the ads for Da Cat boards were famous; they featured quixotic shots of a melancholy Dora, ruing his lost utopia. It was an odd marketing strategy—including an infamous shot of Miki crucified on a cross constructed from two surf boards—but successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. This ambivalence is quintessentially American: as old as the cowboys who decried the legend at the same time they sold their stories to the dime novels, and as contemporary as pierced and tattooed X-Games athletes talking about keeping it real at the same time as they license their bad boy images for the highest dollar.

Dora was the first literary super-star of the surfing world. He crafted a snarling, witty persona in interviews, and wrote short essays for Surfer magazine about the end of his personal Eden. “Bad omens,” he wrote, “are in the air.” Whereas The Day of the Locust famously concludes with a fire ravaging the assorted cretins and hucksters of Nathan-iel West’s Los Angeles, -Dora’s twist on the apocalyptic imagination presages our own fears of global warming and rising waters. Dora was forever waiting for that moment when “the sea gods come and reclaim their domain.”

Before those gods arose from their depths, Miki was determined to have the best and most interesting time he could.3 There’s a contact sheet of headshots Miki did in 1962 with two-day stubble and a cigarette dangling from his lips, where he looks like nothing so much as a Magyar Marlon Brando (whom Miki had met and liked). The photo-graphs of this period show Miki and his compat-riots perfecting beach cool. Look at Miki leaning against a wall, wearing faded khakis, a T-shirt, and a crooked smile and you see the American image of youth, power, and inchoate rebellion that every active sports retail brand the world over sells for billions.4

Miki supported his intriguing life with an endless series of scams and subterfuges. When he got free tickets to an event, he would immediately sell them and then sneak in. He and three friends took an infamous “surf ambassador tour” of South America, including a scam that got him into the Governor’s Ball in Rio, topped off with kiting a check for fifty-thousand dollars’ worth of jewels. Miki hustled at golf, tennis, racing, anything to keep moving forward. Eventually, Da Cat just took off. In his last competition, the 1967 Malibu Invitational Surf Classic, he caught a great wave, turned his back on the judges, spectators, photographers, hangers-on, and assorted kooks, and dropped his trunks, mooning the whole lot of them—a post-adolescent version of Garbo’s wanting to be alone. He spent the next four decades roaming the globe, surfing waves, charming some, stealing from others. He served federal time for fraud and grand larceny. In 2002, at the age of sixty-seven, he died of cancer, in his father’s house in Montecito. To this day, worldwide, but especially in the Pit at Malibu, you can still see the graffiti that the -surfers he inspired to their own acts of rebellion and renunciation put up in honor of their mysterioso missing Magyar mentor: “Dora Lives!”


Schindler in his House

The word Kakania sounds like it could come from a luau in Gidget Goes Hawaiian. Likely Miki Dora would have brought it back from the islands to Malibu’s Pit, just because it sounded scatological.5 Kakania is, in fact, the nonsensical name that novelist Robert Musil coined to refer to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, “that misunderstood State that has since vanished.” Musil’s pitiless masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities, offers a postmortem of the last days of der österreichisch-ungarischen Monarchie, and to comprehend Musil’s in-joke requires both knowledge of German and some historical understanding of the political forces pulling at either side of the country’s hyphen. Austro–Hungary was seen as both kaiserlich-königlich (k.k., Imperial-Royal) as well as kaiserlich und königlich (k und k, Imperial and Royal). The nitpicking about what was k.k.—specifically Austrian—or k und k, which included the Central European peoples like the Hungarians, caused the subjects of the Dual Monarchy much angst. In spite of all these cascading Ks, or perhaps even because of them, Kakania gave birth to much genius. Freud, Kafka, Erd˝os, von Neumann, Wittgenstein, Klimt, Schrödinger, Schoenburg, Schumpeter, Loos, and others too numerous to mention were born into the Empire.6 Whatever the field, from music to mathematics, physics to architecture, Kaka-nians were inventing modernisms across their vast realm. But then Kakania vanished and more than a quarter century of misery, depression, pestilence, and war ensued.7

So many of the best left, and some of the more talented ended up on the shores of the New Eden. Los Angeles in the 1930s and ’40s has been called Weimar on the Paci-fic, but I like to think of it as Kaka-nia on the Koast. There were enough of them to create a community, but it was a small enough group to ensure remarkable crossovers. If Bertolt Brecht could make the film Hangmen Also Die with Fritz Lang, just before Thomas Mann, advised by Theodor Adorno, wrote Dr. Faustus featuring a character based on Arnold Schoenberg, all these -giants living within a few miles of each other, then we can posit the following fiction about a late summer evening in the middle of the twentieth century:

The Kohner family drives east on Sunset from Brentwood to the Little Hungary, where Miki Dora’s father greets them at the door. Miki’s not there. He’s sleeping in the Pit at Malibu, waiting for the dawn break. The Kohners are seated next to a table where the Budapest-born actress Hedy Lamarr sits alone, puzzling over the frequency-hopping torpedo protection technology that earned her a patent and the grateful thanks of the War Department.8 As the Kohners leave, they pass an older man coming in. He is an architect who has walked up to the Sunset Strip from his house on King’s Road. Did they all have goulash, or was there a special on schnitzel? Given that this is sheer invention, I choose goulash.

The latecomer to this fictional dinner was Rudolph M. Schindler, who, though close to forgotten at mid-century, is now acknowledged to be one of the two finest modern architects to have worked in Los Angeles, and among the most influential worldwide. The modest residence from which he walked to the Little Hungary is now universally acclaimed as the first great modern private house. The Schindler House is the last stop on our connectionist journey around Southern California, because it both prefigures and outlives the cultural and economic transformations to which Gidget and Da Cat contributed.9

Schindler wasn’t running away from persecution in 1914 when he left Vienna and headed for America. Instead, he was seeking space, light, and opportunity, the classic California triad. Along the way, he stopped in Chicago for a few years to work for Frank Lloyd Wright, and it was Wright who convinced him to head even farther west. The plan was to have Schindler supervise the construction on Wright’s Barnsdall House in Hollywood. After breaking away from Wright, Schindler and his wife Pauline decided he should stay in Los Angeles, and establish a combination residence and studio, on the model of Wright’s own Taliesin. The Schindlers forged a relationship with Clyde and -Marian Chace. Pauline and Marian had been friends in college, and Clyde was a builder interested in new materials and construction. All were utopian modernists, interested in remaking the world through form and action. They decided to pool their resources and create a new way of living in which each of the residents would function as an artist, a communal space in which cooking was transformed from womanly -drudgery into shared pleasure, in which the boundary between family and community, between the personal and the political, and between work, life, and play, would dissolve.

Erected in then only partially developed West Hollywood, Schindler’s 1922 house was radical from the plan forward. Nothing about the way they lived was as radical as the space in which they were living, though. Two couples were intended to share the main house, arranged in a symmetrical pattern. There was an additional studio attached for the use of a single individual. The materials were simple: concrete, unadorned wood timber, glass. The construction was unconventional, with lean-up walls and slits for windows, and numerous sliding panels, designed to facilitate movement across -boundaries, from interior to exterior and among the couples’ shared spaces. There were Japanese theatrical performances in the garden, the residents would occasionally wear toga-like garments free of buttons and zippers, the politics were left of center, rumors of polygamous pairings were bandied about. All in all, the neighbors were scandalized. Reyner Banham -famously described Schindler as coming close to designing “as if there had never been houses before.”

The radical break with earlier architecture is the melding of interior and exterior. The landscape flows into the home; the home, via its outdoor patios, fireplaces, and sleeping porches, intermingles with the outdoors. While his erstwhile friend, colleague, and even Schindler House–mate Richard Neutra became more famous, Schindler was there first. The style that Schindler and Neutra developed on the fringes of architectural civilization became central two dec-ades later to the program of Arts & Architecture, the seminal magazine of West Coast modernism. The magazine sponsored the case study house program from 1945–1966, and its pictures (often by renowned photo-grapher Julius Schulman) of the new style of architecture influenced the entire postwar building boom. The ranch home with pool, sliding glass doors, and a stripped down aesthetic, the seamlessness of experience and the purchase of experience, whether kitsched up for the suburbs or not, owes its mass appeal to these case study homes, but even more to the photographs of them.

Just as surfing is a sport that most people experience through photography, so too is high–modern archi-tecture something generally en-countered through images. It can even be said that surfing and modern architecture are designed for the perfect moment of photo-graphy: the instant in the tube before the wave closes in, that brief interval between completion of construction and the arrival of the clients. There’s another odd symmetry between soul surfing and the West Coast’s high-modern architecture. Each claimed the desire for a personal connection to and communion with nature, achieved through the spare use of the most contemporary materials and techniques. Yet this communion, often discussed in the loftiest of terms, was also quite exclusive, and those who achieved its satori often fought to keep -others away. Miki Dora was famous for his vicious localism after the Gidget crowds roared in; what are we to make of Pauline Schindler’s decade-long attempt to restrict King’s Road to zoning for single-family homes? No renters, or even condos, in her workers’ paradise, I suppose.

Like Miki, Pauline wanted to keep her cool exclusive, but they were both fundamentally out of step with the second half of the twentieth century. Cool was no longer the province of the avant-gardes, the rebels, the margin dwellers. Cool had become a brand. Gidget, and even more so the opportunistic Frederick, were among the first to surf this wave. The X-treme sports industry, which sells board shorts, skate shoes, watches, hoodies, and wraparound shades in lieu of experience, owes its fortunes to the pint-sized daughter of an émigré father on the run from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s gnarly on the Ringstrasse, dude!10 

1. This distinguishes surfing from NASCAR, which generates a rabid fan following at the same time as it moves literally tons of merchandise.
2. Gidget was released within weeks of the first American version of Lolita. It must have been something in the air.
3. That kind of image, linked to his otherworldly skills, meant that he ruled the beach, and he knew all the famed surfers and shapers of his era, from Dale Velzy to Greg Noll, but Miki was also a player inland. He hung out with the Beats and dropped acid with Tim Leary. He raced antique cars with Steve McQueen and hung out at the Ferus gallery with Billy Al Bengston (the “real” Moondoggie and the most famous artist who ever surfed well) and Bengston’s gallery mates like conceptualist/painter Ed Ruscha and actor/photographer/legend Dennis Hopper. Miki claimed to have met Barbara Handler, the “real Barbie,” while she was living out of a van, complaining that her parents stole her life and ­image. He surfed with Hollywood Ratpacker and Ca­melot princeling Peter Lawford, and is rumored to have accidentally run his board over JFK while the president was bodysurfing at Lawford’s place in the Malibu Colony. Miki was even at the Ambassador Hotel the night that RFK was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan, one of the few parts of the Dora story that can be checked against police records (he is on the interview list for that fateful night).
4. When Abercrombie & Fitch decided to create a sub-brand appealing to adolescents, they created the fictional “surf brand” Hollister: “Surfing is one of those sports that, whether you do it or not, you are inspired by the lifestyle. It represents freedom, it’s exciting, it’s dangerous, it’s difficult to do. It’s very aspirational.”
5. Amazingly enough, in 1846 The Knickerbocker: Or, New-York Monthly Magazine used the word kakania as pidgin Hawaiian in an ersatz letter to the magazine from the king of that then independent island paradise. (God, do I love Google Book Search.)
6. The author of Mein Kampf, Kakania’s most infamous son, is intentionally omitted from this list.
7. The Austro-Hungarian Jewish writer Joseph Roth referred to the conflict of 1914–18 as a world war, “not because the entire world had conducted it but because, owing to it, we all lost a world, our world.’’
8. See U.S. Patent 2,292,387.
9. Another point of connection here is that Miki Dora, at the time of this fictional dinner, lived almost exactly midway between the Schindler House and the Little Hungary. After his parent’s divorce, Miki moved in with his father’s mother, Madame Nadina DeSanctis. The Mad­ame, a concert pianist, had arrived from Vienna in 1937, and supported herself in exile as a vocal coach. While Gard and Miki’s mother were living in the Valley in a reconverted garage amid GI housing and sprouting TV aerials, Miki’s ­father and ­paternal grandmother were the young surfer’s link to Kakanian elite culture.
10. If you are in need of shorts or wax, I would recommend Surfinsel,Vienna’s full service surf shop, at 126 Margaretengürtel.
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